Twenty reasons to visit Stone Town
Stone Town, Tanzania
Stone Town beach, Zanzibar. Photo: Getty Images
1 Laneway shopping
The higgledy-piggledy laneways of Stone Town, on the island of Zanzibar, resemble the souks and medinas of Arabia, and hidden behind the many doors are merchants and craftsmen who sell everything from carved wooden chests and Indian fabrics to clothing and spices. Try Moto & Dada, a co-operative that sells handmade items in support of Zanzibari women, such as hand-woven baskets, colourful kikoi sarongs and aromatic body scrubs using indigenous spices. motozanzibar.wordpress.com.
Traditional garb ... a kanga. Photo: Getty Images
The grandeur of the elaborately carved, ornate teak doors around Stone Town will stun you - even more when they're attached to a fairly average building. Many are studded with pointed brass spikes and inscribed with Koranic script. Doors to each house were traditionally built before the house, and the greater the wealth and status of the owner - who was usually a wealthy merchant - the larger and more magnificent the door.
3 Rooftop views
Wandering aimlessly (or getting hopelessly lost) in Stone Town's tangle of laneways is one of the island's simple pleasures. Get your bearings from above at the aptly named Tower Top restaurant. With arguably the town's best vantage point, it's set high above the rooftops and minarets atop 236 Hurumzi, a hotel once home to Sir Tharia Topan, an adviser to Sultan Barghash. At the eatery, which is festooned with hardwood beams, Persian carpets and billowing silk curtains, you can lounge on cushions with a cold Kilimanjaro beer in hand while listening to live taarab music and watching the sun set. 236hurumzi.com.
House of Wonders, Stone Town, Zanzibar. Photo: Getty Images
Whether it floats from an open window or you're lucky enough to see it performed live, the soundtrack to Zanzibar is taarab, a haunting blend of classical Swahili poetry, percussive rhythm and melody, with influences from the Middle East, India, Africa and the West. One of the best places to understand taarab and Zanzibar's other music styles, such as beni or kidumbak, is at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, a grand old building on the Mizingani waterfront. Musicians and bands are happy to let you sit in the room as they practise - as long as you keep quiet, of course. zanzibarmusic.org.
5 Stay in a palace
Lifeblood ... spices at a market in Stone Town. Photo: Alamy
When Zanzibar was ruled by the Omani empire, Mashariki Palace was the domicile of the sultan's religious counsellor. Over the years, the ancient palace fell into an abysmal state of disrepair, but it has since been rescued by an Italian investor and remarkably restored into an 18-room boutique hotel with high stone ceilings, stucco decoration and fabulous, carved, four-poster Arabian beds. The thick, whitewashed stone walls create natural cooling, which is a welcome relief from Stone Town's sticky humidity. masharikipalacehotel.com.
6 Forodhani Night Markets
Held nightly along the seafront, the street-food market is a boisterous hub of colour, noise and smell. Vendors mostly sell sizzling skewers of barbecued seafood or nyama (meat) cooked over charcoal. The freshly pressed sugar-cane juice is a must, while a Zanzibari pizza - crepe-like dough cooked with meat, is the island's answer to the kebab. Be wary in low season with seafood - occasionally, "fresh" offerings sold by less than scrupulous vendors are better tossed to the seagulls.
7 Africa books
There are plenty of second-hand bookshops littered around the laneways of Stone Town and while you might chance upon a gem, it's more likely to be Mills & Boon trash or foreign-language paperbacks. Novel Idea is the sort of bookshop to while away several hours poring over a bounty of Hemingway, books about Zanzibar and Swahili cooking, and adventurous tales about explorers such as David Livingstone, who spent time in Zanzibar during his expeditions. anovelideatanzania.com.
Spices are the lifeblood of Zanzibar's islands and a guided tour of a plantation offers a fascinating look at how cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, among others, are grown and used in Swahili cooking and medicine. For a plantation-to-plate experience, try Big Body & Tatata Spice Farm, one of many plantations that offer tours. Guide Said Usafiri, nicknamed "Big Body" for his rotund shape, is also a chef and will whip up a traditional Swahili biriyani for lunch. At the end of the tour, you can buy spice-imbued soap and small bottles of sandalwood and ylang-ylang oil. +255 777 439 887.
While spices are intrinsic to Zanzibari culture, coffee (kahwa) is equally vital, inspiring conversation and even a round of dominoes at Jaws Corner. This small intersection off Kenyatta Road is where mostly local men and elders converge, drinking porcelain cups of Swahili kahwa, which is brewed over hot coals with freshly ground cinnamon, cardamom and ginger. Zanzibar Coffee House is set inside an atmospheric old Arab mansion. Coffee here is top-notch, brewed by an all-female Zanzibari team, including 2009 Tanzanian barista champion Asmah Juma. riftvalley-zanzibar.com.
10 Dawa cocktails
You will come across dawa (which rather cleverly means "medicine" in Swahili) throughout east Africa. It's a cocktail mixed with local konyagi gin or vodka, honey and lime, and is best enjoyed outside at Africa House, a royal residence-turned-British-Club-turned-hotel. Angle for an outdoor seat at the colonial-inspired Sunset Bar, which has a generous terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean. Watching dhows sail gracefully along the coastline as the sun dips into the sea, dawa in hand, is a magnificent way to finish a day. africahousehotel.com.
Stone Town's crumbling facades get a colour pop whenever a Zanzibari woman clad in a kanga strolls past. These brightly patterned cotton garments are traditionally imprinted with a "methali" (Swahili proverb), which is usually an enigmatic lament about love, relationships or the wearer's political opinion. You can buy kangas, along with kaftans, dresses and trousers, from a tiny store called Upendo Means Love, which helps Muslim and Christian women learn sewing skills and economic independence.
12 Traditional beauty
Zanzibari women know a thing or two about using the island's spices for medicine and beauty. Turmeric, for example, is mixed into a paste and slathered over acne. Brides-to-be undertake the "Singo" at Mrembo Spa, a traditional Zanzibari pre-wedding body scrub using rose water, jasmine, ylang-ylang and a local herb called mpatchori. Elsewhere, Cinnamon Spa uses organic spices, sea salt and seaweed in facials, wraps and the like. cinnamonspa.net.
13 Swahili cuisine
Fresh seafood, spicy fish curries - there's much to love about Swahili cuisine. Even if you're not the type to sign up to cooking classes, it's worthwhile because most take place inside Zanzibari homes and are usually packaged with spice farm and market visits. The haggling experience with fishmongers is memorable. For authentic Zanzibari dining, try Sambusa Two Tables, a rustic, husband-and-wife-run restaurant in a private house off Kaunda Road. It seats only a handful at two tables, serving delicious Swahili dhals and biriyanis.
14 Lazuli cafe
When your stomach begs for biriyani and curry reprieve, head to Lazuli on Shangani Street , a relaxed little corner cafe popular for its healthy salads, wraps, freshly squeezed juices and smoothies - try the date and honey. Owned by a South African woman and her Zanzibari husband, it has a typical laid-back island pace, with colorful plastic tables, children playing outside and the odd cat miaowing at your feet.
15 Jozani Forest
Zanzibar doesn't have much in the way of wildlife, but its most famous furry residents are red colobus monkeys, which are endemic to the island. With their furrowed ancient faces and doe-eyed expressions, these critters are cute, peaceful and not the sort to snatch your sunglasses. They freely roam the jungle of Jozani Forest, a national park 38 kilometres from Stone Town, easily explored within a few hours.
16 Freddie Mercury
A bit of local trivia for you: Farrokh Bulsara was born in Zanzibar in 1946. Who? Most of us will know Farrokh better as Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant former Queen frontman. Freddie left Zanzibar as a boy, but a few Stone Town establishments are doggedly capitalising on his fame. Some claim his former home is on Kenyatta Street, though there's not much evidence to back it up. The Zanzibar Gallery, has a gold plaque on the wall in his honour.
17 House of Wonders
Beit al-Ajaib is called the House of Wonders because it was the first building on the island to have electricity and running water. The commanding, elaborate building on the waterfront was built in 1883 by Sultan Barghash as a ceremonial palace, though today it's home to the Zanzibar National Museum of History and Culture. There are some decent exhibits worthy of a nose around, detailing Zanzibari culture, dhows and early Swahili civilisation.
18 Slave market
Until 1873, Zanzibar had a flourishing slave trade. Up to 30,000 people a year were shipped over in dhows and imprisoned under appallingly cruel conditions before being sold at an open slave market. The grim reality hits home on a guided tour of the Anglican Cathedral, built by British missionaries over the site where slaves were tied and whipped before being sold. A peek inside the dingy, windowless cellars beneath the ground, where up to 75 slaves were kept at a time with no food, fresh air or toilets, is sobering to say the least.
As bewitching as Stone Town might be, after a few days you'll want to hotfoot it to the beach. Head north for idyllic stretches of fine white sand but be warned - it can vanish for hours each day due to tides. Backpackers favour the beach volleyball, bars and full-moon party at Kendwa, while Matemwe and Pongwe are nooks of paradise suited to honeymooners. For more interactions with local life, Nungwi, with a range of huts, boutique hotels and luxury resorts for all budgets, is next to a fishing village.
Scuba divers get misty-eyed when they speak about Zanzibar's crystalline waters and abundant marine life. Diving at Mnemba Atoll off the north-east of the island, with its coral reefs and curious fish, is like swimming through an aquarium. Sea turtles and dolphins are seen regularly. There are numerous reputable dive companies, but for a shorter boat trip out to Mnemba, the PADI centres at Nungwi or Matemwe make the most sense.